When Rachel Charlton-Dailey got a dog, little did she know it would lead her to form some of the most enriching friendships of her life. Here, she writes an ode to the sacred solidarity of dog walking.
“Morning love. Oh, you’re looking much better. Are the tablets working then?”
I’d lived in my neighbourhood for a year before I got my dachshund Rusty, and I barely knew a soul. Now, a year later, I know most of my neighbours and have my own little support group.
Rusty and I go for a walk twice a day around our local area. As we tend to stick to the same route, he’s started becoming friendly with certain dogs and along the way I’ve gotten to know their walkers and owners.
Already having a common interest means conversation flows easily and you become friends with people; you get to know about them through their dogs. As we saw more and more of each other we started to ask about each other’s day, learning details about our jobs and home life. They moan about having to work extra hours and we share stories about the weekend.
But here’s the weird thing - I often don’t know any of their names, just their dogs.
A study published by Lisa Wood found that pet owners were 60% more likely than non-pet owners to get to know people in their neighbourhoods they hadn’t known before. People who walked their dogs regularly were also far more likely to have reported befriending someone they met through their dogs.
“Pet ownership appears to be a significant factor for facilitating social interaction and friendship formation within neighbourhoods,” writes Dr Wood. “For pet owners, this also translates into new sources of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.”
Walking a dog is relaxing and it lets down your guard; you become friends with people and share so much that you never would with any other stranger. You trust each other a lot easier than you would someone you may meet in any other situation. I think this is because we’re letting them be part of the sacred bond that passes between us and our dogs; we’re trusting them with the most important thing in our lives.
Through dog walks, I and others have helped each other through so much. I supported one woman through child loss; obviously I couldn’t medically do anything, but I could listen and take her mind off it. A few months ago, a well-loved dog walker’s partner became ill and had to stay in hospital for an extended amount of time. One fellow walker who worked for the council helped him apply for more accessible housing so his husband could get out of hospital and they could live together again. When a friend’s child left for university and she was struggling with empty nest syndrome, she took me under her wing as her surrogate daughter.
In turn I have been supported by them too. They were my sounding board when I was getting married and received pushback for wanting such a small wedding. When I was struggling with mental health problems, I felt that I could trust them to share that without judgement. Whilst recently going through a change in antidepressants they have checked in with me when they’ve seen me and made sure I’m staying afloat.
In a study in which participants were asked to rate people in drawings on different attributes (unhealthy versus healthy, friendly versus hostile, intelligent versus unintelligent, and so on), they rated the cartoon people more positively when animals were included in the drawings.
It’s through our dogs that I met one of my best friends, Karlie. Rusty was attracted to her girl dog Lola instantly and as we walked together, we began talking. I felt like I could trust and confide in her instantly and we both shared intimate things about our lives. I felt like I’d known her my entire life; it was only when I got home that I realised I didn’t know her name. The next day we met up again and laughed because we’d both spent a long time gushing about the other to our partners, but drawn a blank when they’d asked our names. We’ve been inseparable ever since.
It makes sense that people will make friends with other dog walkers when they are statistically the people they will see the most. A study commissioned by children’s TV channel Boomerang found that, on average, dog owners spend more than seven-and-a-half hours a week walking their furry pals, while one in 10 will be outside for up to 10 hours. The study also found that 54% of dog owners believe having their pet has helped boost their confidence and made it easier for them to talk to strangers.
Getting a dog has changed my life in so many ways, but I am most thankful for the incredible support group I have gained through dog walks.
Images: Getty, Unsplash